Nobody can say that Angelina Jolie doesn’t love her subjects. Watching Jolie’s Unbroken, a WW2 drama about US soldier Louis Zamperini’s imprisonment in a Japanese labor camp, it was impossible not to admire the beautiful masculinity of the different characters. From the macho shirtless pilots to the evil Japanese commander that spent the entire movie torturing and humiliating Zamperini, the camera showcased lots of close ups and fantastic lighting, so that characters seemed to glow with the warmth of a perpetual orange yellow sunset.
And yet, even as no one could doubt Jolie’s love of and inherent respect for each of her characters, it was no surprise to me to read that right wing groups in Japan took issue with her portrayal of Japan and Japanese soldiers. Before the movie was even released in Japan, petitions started cropped up calling the movie racist and anti-Japanese and many called the facts in the movie pure fabrications. They demanded the banning or boycott of the movie and Jolie.
While the argument that the atrocities the film portrays are ‘fabrications’ is ridiculous at best (there is plenty of evidence from historians on both sides of the ocean that prove exactly what atrocities were committed) they actually had a point about the racism of the story.
Because as much as Jolie uses the camera to love each character, she at the same time, tells a pretty standard US centric story about the Pacific theater during WW2. In the standard story, there is usually a single white hero, the person who sets and interprets the story for the viewer. They are like Cool Hand Luke, getting up up over and over again, no matter how many times they are struck down, overcoming the great challenges put in front of them–usually put there by the Japanese. If Japanese are given roles at all, it’s either non-speaking ‘people who sit in a room planning war actions’ or the single sadist that tortures and violates the hero of the camp.
Jolie chooses the single sadist route for Unbroken. While there are (admittedly fascinating) glimpses of a non-military Japanese public, the movie centers on camp leader, Mutsuhiro Wantanabe, or ‘the Bird,’ played by newcomer and utterly lovely, Miyavi. But while Jolie shoots Wantanabe in mostly extreme close ups, caressing his face, creating an almost sexual relationship between Wantanabe and Zamperini (and interesting side note: Wantanabe described in later years the sexual pleasure he got off of beating and torturing prisoners), we don’t know anymore about Wantanabe after the movie is over than we did before. Why on earth is he committing the atrocities? Why does he choose to target Zamperini in particular? We know even less about the nameless and faceless Japanese soldiers that worked under Wantanabe at the camp. Did they agree with how their commander was acting? Do they have any opinions at all?
I heard an interview once with an actor that said it’s important to portray evil characters as if they don’t consider themselves evil. That is, even the most heinous characters have an inner logic, a way to self-justify their actions. And this is what is missing in Unbroken, indeed, in almost all cinematic portrayals of the Pacific war. That any Japanese could possibly have an inner logic, a means of understanding themselves and their actions, an ethic that helps them to justify some of the worst violence, seems to be asking for far too much in US cinema. But it’s not an impossible thing to ask for, and it’s not as if we’ve never seen ‘evil’ portrayed compellingly in other WW2 movies (see Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List for a fantastic complicated portrayal of ‘evil’). Where is a similar nuanced complicated reflection of Japanese actions in the Pacific theater?
It brings to memory the book Slaughterhouse 5. In it, the narrator visits a soldier buddy after the war with the intention of remembering things that happened during the war so the narrator could then write a book about it. The buddy’s wife is reluctant to talk to the narrator, but finally tells him that the narrator and her husband were just babies when they fought in WW2. And if the narrator wrote a book, he would turn those scared babies into Heroes–Cool Hand Lukes who never stay down when told to.
With Unbroken, Jolie has done what that former soldier’s wife predicted would happen. She turned Zamperini into a Hero, when he really was just a kid who survived brutal violence and then came home and faced PTSD, heavy drinking and, by his own account, almost lost his wife to divorce. How did he make it through that? The movie lets us know in the final seconds of the film that Zamperini forgave all his captors, even the Bird, because of his Christian faith, but that’s all we’re told. We see none of his struggles, feel none of his emotions, learn nothing of the universal condition. Ironically, not only do we know next to nothing about Japanese soldiers or the Bird at the end of the movie, we really don’t know all that much more about Zamperini. Unbroken is about a Hero narrative that services the US at the expense of Japan and, more pointedly, the very real live men who lived through and committed untold violence and eventually managed to find forgiveness and redemption.
Jolie offers nothing new or interesting to the genre of WW2 movie making, and that is profoundly disappointing. In a cinematic world filled with tired machismo and saber rattling, seeing WW2, especially the Pacific theater, as interpreted through the eyes of a woman is extremely rare, almost unheard of. That I know of, Jolie stands as the first and only woman to offer a cinematic interpretation of the Pacific war. But I really wish Jolie had waited to get a few more movies under her directorial belt before taking on this subject matter–then she would’ve had the confidence to do as the narrator in Slaughterhouse 5 did; tell a story about soldiers lives not thru a tired macho narrative–but through a narrative of complication, messiness and ultimately, humanity. Jolie has potential to make a story like Unbroken into a fantastic desperately needed one. This time around, however, she fell short.